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Under fire from US, Iran reacts by cracking down at home

The government has restricted media, targeted academics, and, in one month this spring, stopped or detained 150,000 people – including four Iranian-Americans. [Editor's note: The original subhead mischaracterized the number detained.]

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"This is a comprehensive security plan of the whole [Islamic] system, not just Mr. Ahmadinejad," says Saeed Laylaz, an economic and security analyst in Tehran. The crackdown is being pursued on three levels, says Mr. Laylaz: First, by "attacking ordinary people" to increase the police's street presence. Second, going after student activists – including eight who were arrested after chanting to Ahmadinejad "Death to the dictator" last winter – and intellectuals like the Iranian-Americans, and purging universities of liberal professors. And third, arresting a top insider on spying charges – former nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian – "as a warning notice to people who are thinking that they could do something against the system," says Laylaz.

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Economic woes on the rise

Ahmadinejad was elected on the promise of bringing Iran's vast oil wealth to the "dinner table" of poor Iranians. But instead unemployment has risen, along with inflation, and Iran's small refining capacity – Iran imports 40 percent of its gasoline, at $4 billion each year – has forced an easing of long-standing subsidies at the pump. Now cars are limited to just less than a gallon a day, and motorists are fuming.

The violent reaction, when authorities gave only three hours notice that rationing would start at midnight, "could have been worse," but for the pre-emptive crackdown, says Mr. Sadjadpour.

"People sensed that the regime and the basiji [volunteer ideological forces] were really on a head-cracking spree the previous few weeks," says the analyst. "It made people think twice before going out onto the streets to vent their criticism."

Still, images of burning gas stations did little to calm nervous Iranians. "Unfortunately, Mr. Ahmadinejad did not [fulfill] his promises to poor people," says Laylaz. "This social unrest is an immediate and direct consequence of those policies.... And at the moment, the social structure of this country is absolutely fragile and sensitive about economic issues."

But those economic concerns have become tangled with myriad other social and strategic issues in Iran, which blend into a single "security" response from the regime. And the crackdown has had an impact, as Iranians – especially those with ties to Westerners – refuse invitations for cultural exchanges, conferences abroad, or lunch in Tehran where Western diplomats might be present.

Iranians with such ties who have been arrested and even imprisoned, report that their interrogators accused them of "serving the enemy" whether they knew it or not. A final report of BBC correspondent Frances Harrison last week, leaving after three years in Tehran, shows the scale of change.While numerous officials had attended the going-away lunch of her predecessor, not one – not even those from the Islamic Guidance ministry, who are often helpful on a personal level – came to her BBC farewell lunch."I did not take it personally," wrote Ms. Harrison. "The atmosphere is now one where Iranians are afraid to mix with foreigners for fear of being accused of spying."

Farhi says that what the regime wants to do is "break the kind of linkages that were created during the [former President Hashemi] Rafsanjani and Khatami period, because all these activities that people are being accused of were legitimate, and in fact promoted under previous administrations." [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Farhi's name here.]

That is the result of a new Machiavellian calculation, says Sadjadpour: "Whereas Khatami and the reformists said our best security is people's happiness, [this hard-line] worldview is that it is much better to be feared than to be loved.

"Their behavior is much more out of desperation than of strength," he adds. "It doesn't show that you are very confident about your place as a regime, when 67-year-old women are being suspected of undermining Iran's national security."